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The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Friday, June 18, 2010

THE STORM

I would describe 1775 as a year of significant events; Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill; in Germany the last woman was hanged as a witch; and then there was the hurricane. One random afternoon that summer, over the bone dry high pressure incubator that is the 3 ½ million square miles of the Sahara Desert, where the summertime temperature can reach 135 F (57.7 C), a monster was conceived.
Of course the Sahara alone, for all its hot breath, cannot produce a monster. It also requires a midwife - in the case of the great Atlantic hurricanes , the Sahel, an Arabic word meaning “shoreline”. Far from the sea, this is where the sands of the great desert meet the shrub and trees of the savanna. Every April to September, at about 16 degrees north latitude, (what is called the Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone) the hot dry easterly Jet Stream off the Sahara meets the rainy season humidity spinning westward over the Sahel, and pulses of thunderstorms burst forth from thin air, one after another, with a new wave forming every three to four days.
Most of the storms which form over the great Niger River Bend, over Mauritania, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote Diviore, fade and are forgotten like drops of water in a dry riverbed. But a few cumulus towers collide with the cold air above 42,000 feet, forming anvil topped thunderheads. The anvils form because as the air rises the temperature and its ability to hold moisture drops. The flat lid marks the boundary between the humid troposphere and the arid stratosphere. And eventually, once the thunderstorms grow large enough and last long enough, their squall line of angry air passes yet another Sahal, this one the border between Africa and the tropical Atlantic Ocean.
Some 300 miles off the African coast, what was at first an easterly wave of thunder storms, sailes past the Cape Verde Islands like a stately fleet of wooden sailing ships of the line. And now it is persistence that choses which storm will earn fame. Over time the friction between the troposphere below and the jet stream above convert the vertical heat engine of the thunderstorms into a horizontal sweep, gathering thogether squals and storms and driving them in a counter-clockwise spin. Sometime in mid-August of 1775, as one spinning storm set sail for the new world, it became a nameless tropical depression over the open sea.
When Christopher Columbus first invaded the Caribbean, at the end of the fifteenth century, he found people across the region who revered a capricious god of storms known as “Hunrakan”, “Hurakan”, or “Aracan”. Having never heard of the Sahara or the Sahel, the residents of the Windward Islands of Martinique and Dominica, could not have imagined the source of the violence that assaulted them almost without warning on Friday, August 25, 1775. So, of course, they ascibed it to the mysterious work of the god, Hurricane.
 A report from St. Croix described how ships at anchor desperately slipped their cables, seeking the relative safety of the open sea. It was as likely as not that such gambles resulted in an enigmatic death. Fifty years later the British Admiralty would estimate that each year 5% of all ships in the Caribbean were lost to such storms, taking as many as a thousand sailors each year to watery graves.
One such sailor, Captain John Tollemache of HMS Scorpion, fought this particular storm of 1775 as he crossed down the coast from British occupied Boston, to Bermuda. A week later, on Saturday, September 2nd, the storm brushed across the outer banks of North Carolina, causing extensive property damage, taking 163 lives in the port of New Bern and destroying the corn crops of Parasquotank County. The Williamsburg “Virginia Gazette” mourned that, “…most of the mill dams are broke, and corn laid almost level with the ground…many ships…drove ashore and damaged at Norfolk, Hampton and York”. The Britsh warship H.M.S. Mercury was forced from her blockade of Norfolk, “…and driven aground in shoal water.” Patriots picked her bones and liberated her cargo, as a gift of the gale.
With its center still off shore this unnamed hurricane swept up Chesapeake Bay. Philadelphia, under a heavy constant rain at 8am on the morning of September 3rd, saw the wind from the Southeast and a pressure drop to 29.5 inches of mercury. By three that afternoon the wind had shifted to the Southwest, and records speak of the “highest tide ever known.” At Newport, Rhode Island, the wind shifted from the Northeast to Southeast between 10am and 2:30pm. As September 3rd ended and the 4th began, the storm turned northwestward, and headed out to sea. There was only one landmass in the new world remaining between the hurricane and its ultimate fate over the cold waters of the Labrador Current; Newfoundland.
There were thousands of fishermen on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. September was the peak season for the long finned squid (Logilo pealiei), used as bait for Cod fishing. And fishermen from all around the Atlantic basin came here every fall to take their share of the bounty.
 But this season the squid had made no appearance until late in the afternoon of Saturday, September 9, when they suddenly descended on the jigging hooks in an ominous blizzard. The squid were even attacking each other while writhing on the hooks. What was driving these cephalopods to such as frenzy?
As the fishermen happily pulled in their abundance they noticed that the dieing sun was blazing in an odd orange tint, and that the wind was freshening and gathering. As darkness enveloped the fishing fleets the more cautious captains made for Salvage Point or Ochre Pit Cove. But none of these anchorages felt protected enough.
That night the sea and the air conspired to murder men and their works. Ships which had thought they were safe, were battered onto rocky shores. In Northern Bay (two above) three hundred sailors and fishermen drowned by morning, their white and bloated bodies strewn across the rocks like beached dolphins. They now lie in a mass grave in the Provincial Park. Human bones would continue to wash ashore on this beach for years to come.
At Harbor Grace, 30 miles to the south, 300 boats and all their crews were lost while at anchor. In Placentia (above), dawn found the most substantial community in Newfoundland at the time, with almost 2,000 souls, awash in a six foot storm surge. Those who survived did so by climbing into the rafters of their attics. A fishing schooner was thrown up on the beach overnight. The only surviving crew member was a boy, lashed to the wheel. Off the Avalon Peninsula two navy schooners were sunk and dozens of fishing ships demasted and left adrift.
At St. Johns (above), on the west coast, the storm surge was 30 feet, and seven hundred boats, large and small in the narrow harbor, were submerged and smashed to bits against each other and the rocks. Fishermen from St; Johns, pulling in their nets on Tuesday, the 12th of September, found between 20 and 30 human bodies tangled in them.
After it was all over a review of the losses listed by Lloyds would produce the startling figure of 4,000 dead, mostly Irish and English, in the fishing fleets off Newfoundland. Rear Admiral Robert Duff, Governor of Newfoundland, attempted to detail the disaster for his superiors back in London; “I am sorry to inform your Lordship that…the fishing works in those places…were in a great measure defaced…I cannot give your Lordship a very correct estimate of the damages sustained by this storm; but (you) should image…that the amount of it in shipping, boats, fishing works etc. cannot be less than thirty thousand pounds…” (about $40 million today). There was barely a house left on Newfoundland with an intact roof or chimney, even if they had not been flooded out. The hurricane of September 1775 remains, more than two hundred years later, Canada’s deadliest natural disaster. For decades afterward the survivors on Conception Bay claimed to still hear the desperate cries of the lost souls in the cold surf.
As for the storm itself, conceived over the hot dry Sahara and born of the warm equatorial waters, it could not simply die. Once over the colder currents of the North Atlantic the storm converted from a warm core to a cold one, drawing a diminished power not merely from air pressure variations but also from temperature divisions, becoming just another in the unending string of common “baroclinic” cyclones that march across Europe. But I like to think that this was the particular storm that passed over Carrickfergus castle, outside of Belfast, Ireland in 1775, and which brought with it such violent and continuous lightening and thunder that it was said the Scotch and Irish fairies were doing battle in the heavens above.
That would be a significant enough ending for such a significant storm in such a significant year.
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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

IN THE NAME OF FANNY ADAMS

I am not surprised the killer apologized. And on that Christmas Eve morning, when “short drop” Calcraft slipped the noose around his neck, twenty-four year old Frederick Baker probably took comfort from having made the apology. He should not have. The hangman, Mr. William Calcraft, had ushered some 450 souls to their final reward over his fifty year career, and Frederick would be far from his last job, although he would be one of the last public ones. But Calcraft’s technique of dropping his subjects no more than 18 inches insured that Frederick, like all the others, would take from three to four minutes to slowly strangle to death, kicking and writhing in full view of the 5,000 people (mostly women) gathered to witness his well earned demise. And the confession he had made and the denial it included was simply final proof that Fredrick Baker was a liar to the very last moment of his life.
On Tan House Lane in the “…pleasant little market town…” of Alton, stood the modest home of bricklayer George Adams, his wife Harriet (above) and their seven children. You can see the hardness of their lives on their worn faces. And perhaps the terrible grief, too.
Tan House Lane was a back street off the main road (the High Street) which led north from Alton to London, 45 miles distant. The Lane was just 400 yards long and terminated in a flood meadow owned by a man named Hobbs who used to grow leeks there. Beyond, crisscrossing foot paths bisected the hops fields that supported Alton's half dozen breweries and their pubs. One of those footpaths, known as the Hollow, led across fields and farms to the even smaller village of Shalden, some three miles away.
On one hot lazy Saturday afternoon, August 24, 1867, sometime after one thirty, seven year old Lizzie Adams and her year eight year old sister Fanny were playing with their neighbor, eight year old Minnie Warner, in the flood meadow, when a man appeared. He was dressed in a black frock coat, light colored waistcoat and trousers and wore a top hat. The girls immediately realized he had been drinking. Still, the man seemed pleasant enough, and offered Minnie and Lizzie a half penny each if they would run a race to The Hollow, while he and Fanny followed. The two girls agreed and scampered off. When they were all rejoined at the Hollow the man congratulated the girls and paid them.
He then offered them a full penny if they would go into a nearby field with him and eat some berries. Again, the offer of a penny was strong inducement and the three girls opened the gate and went into the  field. They spent some time eating berries, before the man offered Fanny a half penny if she would walk with him to Shalden. Fanny took the coin, but something made her refuse to take the man’s hand. He paid the other two girls their last penny and told them to go home. Then he swept up little Fanny in his arms and carried her away.
We have gained some small insight into the fate of "Sweet" Fanny Adams (above) in the 150 years since her ordeal. The lessons were paid for by the thousands of those innocents who have followed her. According to a study released by Washington state, USA, 44 % of child victims were killed by strangers and 42% by family or acquaintances. Two thirds of the perpetrators had prior arrests for violent crimes, but just half had prior arrests for crimes against children. In 76% of homicide cases involving child abduction, the child was dead within three hours. And in 74% of the cases, the victim was a female under the age of 11. Of course none of this insight explains why Frederick Baker sexually assaulted 8 year old Fanny Adams, then killed her and then butchered her corpse. The crime itself may be beyond explanation or understanding. And that may be the saddest thing of all about Fanny's brutal death; the idea that there is little we can do or have done to prevent it from happening again and again.
Later testimony from his co-workers suggested that Fredrick Baker caved in Fanny’s head with a stone, and by three o’clock had returned to his job as a clerk in the office of Mr. William Clement. Later, around five o’clock, Frederick allegedly walked back to the murder scene and butchered and dismembered the little girl’s corpse. It was done quickly and clumsily. She was decapitated. Her legs and internal organs were scattered in the tall grass, haphazardly. And for some reason Frederick carried her eyes all the way to the River Wye before throwing them in. Did he really think hiding her eyes was going to keep anyone from seeing what he had done?
During the inquest at the Alton Old Town Hall (above) Minnie Warner and Lizzie Adams identified Frederick as the man who had carried Fanny off. Mrs. Harriet Adams and their neighbor, Mrs. Gardner, testified they had met Frederick coming out of the meadow when they first went to look for Fanny, sometime after five. When Alton Police arrested him the next day at his workplace, Frederick’s wristbands were still spotted with blood. It was noted that his pant legs and socks had been wet when he had returned after lunch the day of the murder. And a diary entry found in his desk, read, “24th August, Saturday; killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.”
The Alton Police (standing in front of their station on the High Street, above) knew Frederick from pervious arrests for drunkeness and fighting. It would be testified in his defense that Frederick’s father had “shown an inclination to assault even to kill, his children.” It was also alleged that Frederick had recently attempted suicide after a girl had rejected him, that his sister had died of a “brain fever”, and that a cousin had been in mental asylums on four separate occasions. None of that made a difference. The jury convicted Frederick in just fifteen minutes.
The night before his execution, Christmas eve-eve, Frederick Baker wrote to George and Harriet Adams. He wrote that he was sorry for murdering their Fanny, and had done it in “an unguarded hour” only because she would not stop crying. It was done, he insisted without “malice aforethought” and without “…pain or struggle”. Frederick assured the grieving parents he had not molested Fanny, but he offered no other explanation as to why she had been crying when he had murdered her.
The execution of Frederick Baker, as gruesome as any parent of a murdered child might wish for, did nothing to save the lives of the uncounted children who have followed Fanny. But every child saved during the vital first three hours of an abduction by an Amber Alert, must thank Donna and Jimmy Hagerman, who in 1996 pushed to change the way U.S. police respond to child abductions, after their daughter, Amber Hagerman (below) was murdered. And those children saved by Amber's sacrifice can also thank those who ask questions about these monsters in our midst, rather than simply calling for their blood. Spilling blood may be a just punishment, but it never saved a life.
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

THE ETERNAL TRIANGLE; PART ONE

I wonder why they call it “news”? The one thing it never is, is “new”. Every headline merely documents the sad, sustained repetition of scandal, sin, stupidity and sex that is history. As an example, I give you the obtuse triangle of “Big” Jim Fisk, Helen Josie Mansfield and Edward Stokes; a triangle which would have been familiar to Pythagoras and would have bemused Sigmund Freud, and might have informed John Edwards and Governor Mark Sanford - amongst others - if they were to consider themselves as not quite unique.
Jim Fisk was born in Vermont on April Fools’ Day in 1835. His father was a traveling “bummer”, selling pots and pans and trifles. W hen he was 15 Jim ran away to join “Van Amberg's Mammoth Circus and Menagerie”, and returned three years later with a splash of color and bombast which he marketed into a fortune. In the midst of the Civil War, together with Jay Gould - the most hated man in New York - “Big” Jim took over the Erie Railroad.
But it was “Big” Jim who moved the Erie’s corporate offices into the upper three floors of the Grand Opera House (above), which he owned. For while Gould had no interests outside of making money, Jim Fisk was a man of prodigious appetites, many of them involving divas of one kind or another. Jim had been married to his dearest Lucy when he was 19, but she resided in far off Boston with her own lady love, Fanny Harrod. And while Jim kept both ladies in luxury, and even visited them occasionally, he spent most of his free time with “actresses” in New York, and was a regular visitor at the business house of “the notorious Annie Wood”. And it was there one night that Anne introduced Jim to his personal Helen of Troy, Josie Mansfield.
Josie was a beauty in an age when a sexy woman had some meat on her bones. One admirer noted her
“…full, dashing figure …Her eyes are large, deep and bright…Her voice is very soft and sweet”. It was Josie’s mother who first recognized the girl’s talent as “an incorrigible flirt”, and used her as bait in a badger game, played in Stockton, California. A pettifogging local attorney named D.W. Perley , while in a state of undress, was caught "courting" the girl.  He wrote at least one check at gunpoint. There was some quarrel over the proceeds of this venture, and shortly thereafter Josie secretly married and ran off with Frank Lawlor, an actor.
She followed Frank cross-country on the music hall circuit, arriving in New York City in 1864. Here, two years later, Frank came to the shocking discovery that Josie “was going astray” on him. Although why that should have shocked him, considering where they met, seems an open question.  In any case, they divorced, and Josie sought a career more suited to her talents, in the bordello of Annie Wood. There she enticed Annie to introduce her to the genial and generous Mr. Fisk. He was enchanted. She was enriched.
Over night Josie went from being behind in her rent to the “Cleopatra of West Twenty-third Street”, the owner of record of a four story brownstone (after some $65,000 worth of improvements) - conveniently located just around the corner from "Big" Jim's Opera House – with four servants, a wardrobe filled with dresses, and a jewelry case accented by real jewels. But having achieved everything she had hungered for, Josie was now bored. And that was when she made the acquaintance of one of “Big” Jim’s business partners, Edward Stokes, and fell head over heels in love for him.
It was understandable. Where Big Jim had few social skills, Edward had an excess. Where “Big” Jim was physically blunt and crude, Edward was handsome and dashing. He was a privileged, pompous and prideful dandy, with a trophy wife and a 9 year old daughter. Josie was experienced enough to recognize that Edward was also a spendthrift and an inveterate gambler, losing a small fortune on race horses. An affair would be dangerous for them both. Josie depended on "Big" Jim for her income, and Edward was partnered with “Big” Jim in a Brooklyn oil refinery. Edward ran the place, and “Big” Jim’s Erie Railroad transported the refineries’ oil at a discount.  But for reason, in 1869, the suggestion self delusion and self destruction drove Edward and Josie to began an affair -  they thought behind “Big” Jim’s back.
Such a triangle could be maintained only so long as all the parties carefully judged the angles. But algebra was a skill that none of the three possessed in quantity or quality. In January 1870 Josie announced that she no longer wanted to see “Big” Jim unless he made her financially independent. She reminded him,  “You have told me very often that you held some twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars of mine in your keeping…a part of the amount would place me where I would never have to appeal to you for aught” And now, she said, she wanted "her" money.
The entire point of their relationship, as far as “Big” Jim was concerned, was that Josie had to appeal to him for everything. He was hurt, and responded, “Have I not furnished a satisfactory mansion? Have I not fulfilled every promise I have made?” And then he let it be clear that he was fully aware of her affair with Edward. “You may well imagine my surprise at your selection of the ‘element’ you have chosen to fill my place. I was shown today his diamonds, which had been sacrificed ... at one-half their value ….You will, therefore, excuse me if I decline your modest request for a still further disbursement of $25,000” Jim even began calling Josie his Little Miss “Lump-sum”.
Having received a definitive “no” Josie began shifting her demands. First, she threatened to publish “Big” Jim’s love letters to her, then she said was willing to spend an evening with him, then she hinted she would share secret details of his Erie stock manipulations. Through an intermediary “Big” Jim asked Edward how much he would require to return those love letters and return Josie as well. Edward asked for $200,000, and that seemed to have hit “Big” Jim’s limit, again.
Of course,  "Big" Jim still sent Josie cash when she asked for it - $500 on November 7th, $300 on November 10th, another $500 a week later. Now why did he do that? He must have suspected that most of the money was going to Edward. Of course that was also the month that “Big” Jim cancelled the shipping discount for the refinery he shared with his paramour. Of course “Big” Jim was hurting his own profit margin, but Edward, having recently lost yet another fortune at race tracks, was squeezed much harder. Edward grew so desperate that in January of 1871 he collected a $27,500 debt owed to the refinery, and pocketed it.  Almost as if he had been waiting for this, “Big” Jim had Edward charged with embezzlement, and the Lothario spent a weekend in jail before he could raise bail. Edward swore his revenge.
Why “Big” Jim had not done this sooner remains a mystery. The man could make Wall Street tremble, and yet he seems to have been sheered of his strength before Josie's demands. The lady now filed suit in open court, demanding that “Big” Jim pay her $50,000 (the $25,000 plus interest). And Edward climbed on the bandwagon, suing “Big” Jim,  to force him to buy out Edward’s share of their refinery for $200,000. And at last the entire mishegoss, was out in the open, where the press could profit by it.  And they always love that. The story was just beginning.
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